History in Gambia & West Africa
The ancestors of the Mandinkas (Mandingo) of today's
Gambia and Senegal region lived in Kangaba which was a part of the
Mali Empire. They became independent in AD 1235 and gradually
some of them moved westwards. They were looking for a better climate
as well as farming and grazing land which they found near the big
rivers Gambia, Senegal and Casamance. Another reason was their search
for better trading possibilities near the Trans-Sahara-Route. Finally
it was also princes' and generals' hope to reign over own land. This
was indeed possible, because the original inhabitants of the region
lived on scattered farms and therefore weren't able to defend
Whereas at the beginning only single families dared to move, in the
middle of the 13th century general Tiramang Touray started a big
campaign into the region which is today in the south of the eastern
half of Gambia. He founded the Kaabu Empire and expanded into all
directions, so that at the end of the thirteenth century the whole
area with many different nationalities was under the Mandinka's rule.
Later Tiramang's descendants and his generals founded their own
empires within Kaabu. In the centre of the seventeenth century Kaabu
was in its heyday which wasn't only mirrored in the geographical
extent, but also in the cultural development. During this time the
Europeans' influence started. They were mainly interested in trade
with slaves, gold and ivory.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century the Kaabu Empire lost
power. The single states were led by individually thinking rulers and
the influence of the Islam changed very old traditions and structures.
The Islamic influence already started in the 15th century, when the
Fulas sent out missionaries to other peoples, priests from Morocco
preached and Muslim traders came from far away and founded churches
near the rivers. Muslims usually enjoyed high standing, because they
were well educated, had medical knowledge and extensive relations.
Therefore they were also often in the council of Mandinka rulers. The
people were especially interested in their magical powers. Soon
amulets were filled with Koranic verses and Muslims` prayers were
considered to be a special protection. Nevertheless the animistic
thinking didn't stop. In the 19th century Islamic leaders had
established in nearly all Mandinka states.
Strict Muslims accomplished the building of mosques, prayer five times
a day and fasting in many settlements, but often the Islamic doctrine
wasn't taken too serious. Usually the
personal experience of Allah, even
through animistic actions, was more
important for them than the actual
doctrine. In this way it was, for most
people, easier to become a Muslim.
Nevertheless Islam tried to weaken the central points of
the traditional religion: Secret societies were destroyed or turned
into Islamic communities and places of initiation were used for
Islamic feasts. As a result of this the rites were still important in
the families, but the annual festivals and the honouring of the
ancestry lost their importance.
Thus two societies with separate laws and behaviour patterns developed
within the empire. In this way many conflicts and changes were induced
in all nations. Young men left their families in order to follow their
masters, new Muslim settlements developed and traditional ones broke
up for reasons of religion. Even families were divided in this way.
Supporters of the traditional religion were called "Soninke" (from
Kafirs - Arab unbeliever), whereas Muslims called themselves
Marabouts, which was originally used for Northern African masters of
cults. In 1850 an open fight broke out, which went down in history as
the Soninke-Marabout-Wars. Islamic
Fulas invaded the country and Ma Bah, son of a Mandinka Marabout
proclaimed the holy war (Jihad). The longer the war lasted the more
the fight for power displaced religious reasons.
Thus it even happened that Muslims fought against each other, e.g.
when a traditional ruler was to be displaced by a Marabout. At the end
of the 19th century this war made it possible for the English who had
their settlements near the mouth of the
River even a long time
before to subjugate the area along the river and make it their colony.
The marabouts' leaders were defeated and some of the Mandinka rulers
even were glad about it, because they were tired of fighting, though
the ancient Mandinka empire had now been destroyed and the traditional
Mandinka rule had come to an end. In 1901 England and the native
leaders signed a peace treaty and the interior of the country was
divided into 5 provinces.